Designing the Mind

How to Read a Book

10 Tips for Reading Nonfiction and Organizing Knowledge


Over the last couple decades, book sales, time spent reading, and rates of younger generations reading books have been in decline. And it’s not so hard to see why – we’ve got far more stimulating ways of consuming information now. From social media to podcasts to documentaries, there are more ways to learn than ever – some might even call it an improvement.

The problem is that few of these modern formats provide comprehensive understanding. They typically offer “infotainment” – scattered tidbits of trivia and the mere illusion of real learning or understanding. While I think there are huge opportunities for innovation in the way we learn and educate, books are still king when it comes to building knowledge and wisdom.

Now this video isn’t actually directed toward people who have never read a book. It’s directed toward those who aren’t reading books in a way that optimizes for time, comprehension, and information organization, which is almost all of us. I’m going to share the tools I use to read 50-100 books each year, and organize what I learn so I can access and use it later.

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

– Frederick Douglass

Hello psychitects, it’s pretty common for my readers to reach out and ask me about my reading regimen. It seems to have gotten harder and harder to find the time and direct our focus toward reading books, especially dense non-fiction books. I read about one non-fiction book per week, and on average, it takes me about five hours total to read one. But I can assure you that I’m no speed-reading genius.

I was a painfully slow reader in school. Anytime I read a physical book, every sentence is an invitation to get lost in contemplation as my eyes continue mindlessly scrolling down the page. The process of traditional reading for me is basically an act of repeatedly catching myself drifting off, getting annoyed with myself, and rewinding to catch what I missed.

This is why I almost never “read” books in the traditional sense. Everyone is capable of reading the way I do, but most of us make reading much harder for ourselves than it needs to be. Here are some of my suggestions, systems, and software tools to optimize my learning experience.

Read at a Fixed Pace

If you allow yourself to set your own pace while reading, you will inevitably end up reading at an inconsistent pace, taking much longer than necessary. Instead, you should find a way to force yourself to stick to a fast and steady pace.

One way of fixing your pace, often taught in speed-reading courses, is to move your fingers steadily along the page and force your eyes and brain to adapt. This method is workable with some training, but it turns reading into a rather intense experience. Furthermore, it really isn’t necessary to keep track of your own pace thanks to modern technology.

Audiobooks make it so you have no choice but to follow a specific pace. And you might be surprised how high you can gradually dial up the speed and still follow what is being said.

But audiobooks have downsides too. Many books do not have audiobook versions. Even when they do, only consuming a book through audio generally impairs comprehension. And crucially, audiobooks make it impossible to highlight or take notes within the text.

There is still a better method for consuming books – one that only became possible within the last decade or so.

Make Reading a Multi-Sensory Experience

Studies have confirmed that reading text through an audio-visual combination improves comprehension and understanding above either sensory input alone. And fortunately, we’re currently living in the golden age of audio-visual reading.

There are now many apps that enable you to import .epubs and .pdfs, that will then read the text aloud while displaying it on screen. This means you can simply listen to a book while driving or exercising, and easily add bookmarks or highlights without even looking down for more than a second. Or you can sit in a nice spot and listen while watching the text go by on screen.

I personally use Voice Dream Reader, but Speechify, Legere Reader, Natural Reader, and Readwise all offer comparable features. Once you get an app you like, you can start buying books in .epub or .pdf format and downloading them directly to your app.

Best of all, this method means you can read a book visually and audibly at a fixed pace, forcing you to adapt to the speed. I usually read at about 350 words/minute, which seems fast at first, but quickly becomes normal.

But surely your comprehension will suffer when you read at this pace, right?

Stop Reading Every Word

Right! Although audio-visual reading improves comprehension over traditional reading, it’s inevitable you will not catch and process every word when you read at high speeds. And you shouldn’t.

People are reluctant to read this way because they fear they will miss things, zone out and skip sentences, or fail to reflect on and process what is being said. But I would respond that you should be missing things when you read. If you are processing every sentence of a book, you are doing it wrong.

Why not try to comprehend and retain 100% of a book? Well for one thing, this would be an impossible feat. Even if you read, reread – even memorize every word of a book, you still could not possibly consider every relevant perspective, glean every possible interpretation, and grasp every intention of the author. Let go of the idea of 100% comprehension.

The next problem is that not every book deserves maximum comprehension. Most books make their point repeatedly in many different ways. This repetition helps ideas to stick in your mind, but it also makes it so that you can easily skim through entire sections, getting the main points without getting too deep into the weeds.

There are some books that are so good, so aligned with our preferences and fascinations, that we truly want to read them slowly and process every sentence. But this is exceedingly rare. I personally come across maybe one of these books a year.

For the vast majority of books, reading every word is a waste of time. That’s not to say there aren’t unique insights or perspectives hidden in the small details of every book. It’s that every minute you spend trying to catch every little insight in one book is time you could be spending getting big insights by switching to another.

I would go so far as to suggest that you make the decision to breeze through every nonfiction book in a few hours for your first reading. If you find it particularly intriguing and want to read it in more depth, save that for a second reading.

Read with a Goal

Some people read books primarily to entertain themselves. Some read to escape their reality. When I read a book, I generally read in order to extract information that I can use for something – a book or article I’m writing, a discussion I’m having on Mindform, or the actions I take in my life.

If you don’t have a goal in mind, you will never know exactly how deeply you should go into any given reading, or how much time you should spend on it. When you have a goal in mind, it starts to become obvious how you should allocate your attention.

Maybe you want get the main points of a book and understand the general perspective it offers. For this purpose, you can look over the book’s chapter structure, crank up the speed, make sure to catch the main idea in each section, and allow yourself to skip through repetitive or overly exhaustive sections.

If you’re reading a book highly relevant to a research paper or thesis you’re putting together, you should probably slow down and read certain sections deeply and repeatedly. But even in this case, there will likely be some less relevant sections of the book you can speed through or even skip entirely.

You might simply set the goal of finding the ten most interesting takeaways. When you find them, add a highlight to your reading app or physical book. Don’t feel guilty saying you read a book when you only read enough to get the gist. If you read enough of a book to meet your goals, you read it.

You retain more of your reading than you likely realize. Even if you struggle to summarize all of the points a book made, a truly thought-provoking book will change you. It will alter your perspective, and the core ideas will come back to you when they come into play in your life or conversations.

Reading Difficult Books

One task that people can find challenging is reading more dry, dense, or old books. Some of my favorites books are two thousand years old. And for better or worse, the most important books to read are rarely the most recently published.

The Lindy effect states that the longer a period something has survived and provided value to people, the longer it can be expected to do so in the future. This means that most of the best books in the world are likely to be decades, centuries, or even millennia old.

Older books are written in ways that are harder to understand today. They present perspectives that are at odds with modern cultural norms and commonly accepted beliefs. And they contain outdated facts and information. But these are not valid reasons to avoid them.

Reading long, dense books improves your attention span and helps to counter the degrading effects of modern media. Exposing yourself to a diversity of perspectives, including those seen as politically incorrect or offensive today, helps to broaden the way you think, even if you don’t accept them.

Process, don’t trust. Learn to expect books to contain limited, outdated, or plain false information, regardless of when they were published. The idea that respected, contemporary academics and authors will ever be right about everything is deeply mistaken.

You must cultivate your own devices for sorting out truth. For every book you read, you should take what holds up to scrutiny and utility and discard the rest.

Most truths are timeless. Most things that are true today were true 100, 1,000, even 10,000 years ago. And most people who cultivate a deep understanding of a topic – most people capable of having real influence in their lifetime – do not limit themselves to consuming recent, polished, or easily digested work.

Organizing Information

Okay, now all of this info is great for improving the way you read. But what do we do with this information after we’ve consumed it?

As a “knowledge worker,” it has been essential for me to develop a robust system for developing and organizing ideas. A system like this one can essentially allow you to speed read books with full comprehension, take extensive notes, and keep them highly organized for future recollection and use.

Here are the tools I recommend using:


We’ll start with a pretty basic one; whenever I learn about a new book I want to read, I add it to my list on Goodreads. This is my one centralized list with all my reading, so I don’t have to hold books in my mind or keep track of dozens of bookmarks. The way I choose what to read next is usually by going through this list and seeing which book is exciting me the most at the time.

Whenever I finish reading one, I immediately add it to my “read” bookshelf, primarily to give myself a visual progress tracker. This will make reading easier by boosting your identity and pride as you see your collection grow.



Notion has to be my favorite app of all time (besides Mindform of course). It allows you to store and organize information in virtually any form, so it’s a notes app, todo list, database, Gantt chart – essentially anything you want it to be.

Now that Voice Dream app I mentioned earlier allow you to highlight and take notes, and you can easily export them directly into Notion and start organizing.


All of my intellectual insights, my todo list, my psychitectural goals and challenges, my research, my product ideas… everything has a place in this app. I wrote the script for this video in Notion, and I’ve written entire books in Notion, which I’ve found to be better than specialized and paid alternatives like Scrivener. The infinitely nesting hierarchy, searchability, and “linkability” allow you to not only take notes, but create entire webs of understanding. For an advanced approach, look into the Zettelkasten Method.

The habit of taking a note for every thought you have that you don’t want to lose will serve you in countless ways throughout your life, for psychitecture and beyond. Most people have had hundreds of ideas for blog posts, business ideas, conversation topics, you name it, that they’ve lost because they didn’t add them to an (ideally, organized and searchable) list. Just having a note system like this alone will likely train and positively alter many thoughts and habits.

Some of my notes make up entire psychitectural categories like “list of undesirable psychological algorithms” that I will add to whenever I identify one that I struggle with. Lists like this help to create psychitectural trigger points.

Visual Tools

Shown here is an actual mind-map I made in 2012 to evaluate career paths (pretty cool to look back and see that I’m currently doing a mix of nearly all of them)

I’m a visual thinker, and I generally believe that if you can’t represent your ideas spatially, you don’t really understand them yet. I use a wide variety of visual tools to capture my ideas, ranging from Adobe products to Canva, to Sketchbook, to Figma, to Solidworks. Now different needs really require different tools here, but for most visualization methods, it’s hard to beat a free and powerful tool like Figma.

I consider mind-mapping to be essential for gaining clarity, but I actually haven’t found a simple and compelling tool made specifically for it yet, though I hear there are some improved mind-mapping integrations for Notion now.


When it’s time to get some work done, especially writing, I have found no better tool than Focusmate. It calls itself a virtual coworking tool, but that’s actually underselling it a bit. Focusmate sets up roughly hour-long video sessions between strangers trying to accomplish their own goals and asks each person to work silently, only sharing their goal at the beginning and how well they did at the end.

If you try Focusmate, you are pretty much guaranteed to be shocked by how powerful it is as a productivity tool, and it works because it reroutes our desires to follow through on our goals and to gain social approval toward the end of efficiently achieving our personal goals. I have pretty much written all of my books using this tool by scheduling back-to-back sessions and aiming to write 1,000+ words in each.

I try to share these tools and systems with everyone I can because I believe the learning, organization, and growth they facilitate can have a cumulative effect. I hope they can help you improve your methods for reading, comprehending, and organizing information.

Do you have a system for organizing your thoughts? Is there any part of my system you plan on trying out?

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